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Deception on the Internet:
Paid Placements and Metatags
Kourtne Nelson
Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
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Search engines are available throughout the World Wide Web and are used by consumers to provide a fast and free way to find information or products. Many Americans use the web daily as a source to locate specific products and information. However, the problem that may lie in many search engines today is whether or not the information the consumers are receiving on products is an accurate result of their search query. Search engine companies are deceiving consumers through the use of invisible metatags and strategically arranged paid placements.

Keywords that are placed in metatags allow a retailer's product or information to be shown with the original list of results is deceptive. Richard A. Spinello, from Carroll School of Management, states, "A metatag is a piece of HTML code that provides summary information about a web page" (23). It is this "code" that, allows many companies to use keywords from other well-established and creditable sources as their own. Spinello states, "…the "keyword" metatag is particularly susceptible to manipulation" (23). Companies who are competing for business know that when they place a successful company's' "keyword" into their metagtag their business will increase without the consumer ever becoming aware of this deception.

The technology that we experience today through the use of computers is both exciting and useful. However, the technology of search engines on computers allows many possible opportunities for trademark infringements. Spinello states, "The Web is an exciting new commercial environment, but it provides a rich source of possible infringements" (23). Trademark infringements are more problematic through the use search engines than anywhere else in the advertising industry. Spinello states, "…property had been sufficiently protected in the real world through stable regime of copyright, patent, and trademark laws" (23). It is important for companies to pay attention to misleading keywords or phrasing through the use of metatags. If companies do not protect their own rights then it will be easy for others to take advantage of them through the use of trademark infringements.

Companies have chosen to take action against competing companies that are competing to make their products more marketable. Trademark infringements are creating many problems between many competitors that work hard to sell their products. An option that some companies may find effective is a letter discussing the conflict between two competing producers. Lastowka states, "…a letter would work in practice, it would certainly be less expensive than a lawsuit" (149). Competing companies need to work out their conflicts through the easiest plan of action. It is important that the court systems secure the rights of trade holders.

Consumers that use search engines to obtain information or make purchases must understand that pop-up advertisements may try to appear to relate to their search query just to be seen. The keywords or phrases that are entered into a search engine may pick up a variety of different hits that is based solely on a keyword or phrase. Companies that use paid placement advertisements are looking for the most effective way to allow their product or information to be shown first. The fact that many consumers believe that the first source of product or information is the best is deceptive. Paid placements and keyed banner ads have an advantage by showing up before the real results. Consumer should be aware of how deceptive both paid placements and keyed banner ads are through the Internet.

A trademark infringement through the use of metatags is a problem that many companies today may be facing. It creates a problem when companies feel they can no longer have the sole authority over their own product or information. In the past, patents and trademarks were a must if an entrepreneur wanted his or her product to remain protected. However, the invention of search engines also allows many opportunities for beginning, struggling, or unknown companies to find a loophole in the system to help increase their product sales. An American is always looking for a "bigger better deal" and keyword metatags may allow a consumer to see a generic version of the original that is available at a more reasonable price.

Search engines were created to be a reliable source to locate specific products and information. However, after search engines became widely known and accepted then revenues became an option for many search engines. Advertisements were a method that search engines found very effective when creating a profit for their website. Lastowka states, "The advertisements provide a source of revenue for the search engine" (142). Popular search engine websites could begin making a profit from the companies that choose to advertise through the use of pop-ups. A pop-up advertisement is shown based on the amount of money that a company gives a certain engine in order to advertise his or her product. The pop-up advertisement that is shown has nothing to do with the original search performed by the consumer, and that is deceiving the consumer to believe that key banner ad relates to their search.

Paid Placement advertisements that are shown at the top of a website after a keyword search may deceive consumers. It also may be a possibility that the consumer may not realize they are viewing paid placement advertisements until after scrolling down the page of results that are listed. For example, the website http://bidtxt.com only allows the consumer to view the search results after scrolling down the computer screen. The paid placement advertisements are visibly placed at the top of the screen colored bright red with the words, "Featured product and services for" (1). The website address that is shown for the paid placement advertisement is also made clearly visible in green print. The bright green color can be easily noticed so they consumer is more likely to click on that website. The companies that paid for these advertisements choose deceiving words such as, "Featured product and services for," to possibly allow the consumer to believe that the first results that are listed are the true results. After scrolling down the page, the related keyword original results are displayed. The keyword results can be identified by the words, "Additional Results" (1). Consumers may believe that the word choice of "Additional Results" means extra or in addition too. A conclusion that can be drawn from the displayed word choice is that the keyword results are not actually a part of the search results.

A nonprofit organization FTC, founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader, sent several letters to search engine companies that are allowing paid placement advertisements to appear with the original search results. Welly Tantono, Sharon Selby, Jessica Bagner, and Christine Sonu state, "…some search engines accept payment by Web sites that wish to receive priority placement in search results that normally would include the sites but would place them lower on the list" (1). This form of "paid placement" is becoming a concern for many consumers that may have been deceived by such problems. Tantono, Selby, Bagner, and Sonu state, "…the FTC recently sent letters to seven search engine firms regarding their alleged failure to disclose that advertisements are inserted into search results" (1). Statements that are appearing through the web, media, or other sources are allowing the public consumers that do not deal directly with these companies a chance to understand what search engines are now doing. It is a responsibility of all consumers to fully understand how certain search engines display their results that they are given.

Metatags and Paid placements will continue deceiving consumers through search engines on the Internet until there is an effective way to deal with trademark infringements and paid advertisements. Consumers that depend on search engines for their ability to locate reliable information or products must understand that they cannot take every listing or pop-up advertisement for the truth. The search engines that are making money off of paid placements need to realize that they may be losing consumers if an key banner ads are prohibited on certain websites. Search engines should try to limit the amount of paid placement advertisements and metatags that they show with each search result.

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